Don't misunderstand. The arguments in this chapter are important, and most of them have been addressed by some of the most intelligent, insightful and spiritual men that mankind has ever produced. Reading what these men have to say can be enjoyable and instructive. Arguing these things with your neighbors, internet buddies, traveling Jehovah Witnesses or anyone else does no one any good. Don't do it. Simply understand that various views exist, accept one or another if you like, and move on to other things.
The Seven Deadly arguments are presented in somwhat of an order, but if one seems really important you can jump right to it. They are as follows: (1)Does God Exist?;(2) Can God Make a Rock So Big He Can't Move It? (3) Predestination and Free Will;(4) Original Sin;(5) Creationism, or It is Written So it Must Be True; (6) Evil Done in the Name of Religion: and (7) Hell, and Who's Going There.
"You can't go outside." says Mom. "Why?" "It's too cold." "Why is it cold?" "Because it's winter?" "Why is it winter?" "Because of the tilt of the earth in it's orbit around the sun and the location of our house in the northern hemisphere." "Why does the earth orbit and tilt? " Three year olds get tiring rather quickly. Eventually mom wants out of it. "Because that's the way God made it." she says. Hopefully, the child walks away puzzled.You see, Plato decided that in the beginning there had to be an uncaused cause to get things going. The only entity capable of uncaused motion is the soul, and to get the cosmos going one needed a soul a bit more powerful than yours or mine. The soul that did it was God's.
Thomas Aquinas made an argument similar to Plato's based upon the contingency of the world. He noted that a lot of things in this world, particularly people, appear, grow old, retire and then disappear. He reasoned that everything that "is" at one time "was not." Therefore, at some time way back before Macs or PCs the cosmos did not exist. The world was contingent. It could either be on not be. However, it could not have come into existence unless something existed to create it. This creator, the existence of which is shown by the creation, is that which we call God.
Of course, none of this truly ends up answering our three year old, who, when we explain about God, simply asks "Why? and therefore troubles us with whom or what created God. For more on three year olds, see "original sin."
The skeptic has a variety of ways of attacking this proof, the most dramatic of which is to take the position of a cosmic pessimist. We are infinitesimal specks on a tiny planet, and even the sun which we orbit will last no more than a nanosecond in the cosmic scheme of things. Value, morality, truth and goodness are psychological illusions that keep you alive so that you can carry out your genetic obligation to propagate mankind into extinction. We are biochemical machines. We live. We work. We become Republicans, buy Winnebagos and die. Nothing makes any difference, and the fact that people are occasionally kind to strangers does not prove the existence of God or anything else. People who believe this way do not have an organization. Why bother.
Most people believe in God, not because of logical arguments or the words of trusted authority, but because they have had experiences that make nonbelief contrary to their experience of reality. Atheists tear their hair out over this, claiming the religious or spiritual experience does not exist as an independent sensory event, that the experience is not real, or that any evidence resulting from such experience is anecdotal, unverifiable, and therefore meaningless. They point out that having a pink elephant experience does not prove the existence of pink elephants. When pushed to provide a cause for religious experiences, the atheist usually suggests biological agents such as bad drugs in the sixties, tainted food, or improper toilet training. This argument in favor of God has lost a good deal of its force since Jimmy Hendrix.
So much for the arguments in the "Does God Exist?" group. For the theist they all work, for the atheist, none of them do. If you have a new one, keep it to yourself. But whatever you do, don't engage in discussion with anyone about any of these arguments. People's views on these issues are determined by their genetic makeup and short of divine intervention, they do not change.
Can God write a sentence so long He can't read it.? Can God make a chair so uncomfortable he can't sit in it? Can God turn the subject of this sentence into pea soup? Can God turn make a mountain so big it becomes a valley? Can God make this sentence meaningless? Can God make the statement that he is omnipotent into a lie?In one way or another each of the above questions have the grammatical structure of a fair and reasonable question, but in fact make no sense in terms of the subject of discussion. It's another case of the four sided triangle. In essence they ask whether God can do something inconsistent with the common definitions of God or inconsistent with normal people's idea of what is physically and logically possible. So just stay out of it. If you absolutely must get involved do it like this.
"Can God make a rock so big He can't move it? "Yes?" "Aha, then he isn't omnipotent, is he, if he can't move the rock? Get it?" "Oh man, you sure got me on that one."
The secular version arises from the fact that psychologists and those with advanced degrees in the social sciences view themselves as omniscient. What you have for breakfast is determined, not by Gods plan, but by a combination of heredity, the culture in which you happened to be born, social and economic status, upbringing, intelligence, and the biomechanical patterns in your brain. The result is the same. You may have felt that you were making a choice, but over at the university there are several teaching assistants who already knew that it would be bacon and eggs.
So the argument comes down to are we participants in our lives, making meaningful choices and being rewarded or possibly punished based upon those choices, or are we spectators in a divine psycho-social comedy in which we are given the illusion of choice simply so we can stress out about the whole thing. The argument becomes important when you end up before the judge. If it's a free will judge, you go to jail. If it's a predestination judge you end up in a treatment center. Which is worse depends upon your point of view.
The dangerous thing about this argument, is that no one seems to really stay fully on one side or the other. Augustine, a Catholic, and Luther, one of the first born again Christians, were both full blown predestinationists. In their view, whether you were destined for heaven or hell had been decided and written in stone long before you were born. But don't tell a Republican from the bible belt that your are poor, addicted and in jail, because you was predestined to be so. You'll just piss him off. The story might work over at the university as long as you aren't a poor and addicted to born again Christianity. The social aspects are too complex for words, with everything coming down to what extent our choices, our "will," plays in our lives and our disposition thereafter. So, what is this thing called "will," anyway. More on that later.
Some theologians, tired of the whole thing, have decided that destiny and free choice are really not two different things at all, but instead different shades of the same thing. The theory is similar to our experience of light and dark. You can't know one if you haven't known the other, and darkness is really no more than an absence of light. Thus, destiny, God's plan for each of us, is exhibited in our physical, cultural and environmental circumstance, and includes all the choices, good and bad, we have made in the past. We have free choice each morning within the bounds of our destiny. We can choose to have bacon and eggs, but we can't choose to fly or be the Pope. Choice without regard to destiny is arbitrary and meaningless. Destiny without choice is action without purpose. This is a rather pleasant view of the subject, so it is rejected by most secular and religious authorities.
Original sin has had many erudite spokesman, but the one everyone loves to pick on is John Calvin. He is no relation to the Calvin of "Calvin and Hobbes," but is instead a theologian of the sixteenth century known for his organized approach to Christian theology and for a mean streak that seemed to flow through everything he did. He had this to say about original sin:
"Original sin, therefore, appears to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused through all the parts of the soul, rendering us obnoxious to the divine wrath and producing in us those works which the scripture calls 'works of the flesh.'"Calvin is clear that original sin is not about being born responsible for the sins of ones forefathers, but is a pollution of the individual that is everyone's personal birthright. Nevertheless, his use of concepts like heredity, and references to the first sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden, have made the idea of original sin inescapably linked to bearing the guilt for the crimes of ones ancestors. Whether so linked or not, it is the guilt inherent in being who we are.
Original sin is an anathema to the atheist, the humanitarian and anyone who has ever held their little "bundle of joy" in the first days of life. Babies look innocent and by their very nature argue against the idea of original sin. Once they turn two, parents usually reconsider a bit, and adults encountering someone else's two year old, can easily be converted to the concept. However, the whole idea of attaching sin to a person without there being associated sinful acts, seems a bit unfair and somewhat un-American. Also disturbing is the fact that original sin denies parents their God given right to be the ones to inflict upon their children the first taste of guilt, a denial that in many respects removes the basic attraction of parenthood. God may be all powerful, but it was never intended that he take the place of Jewish mothers.
Original sin has a secular counterpart that arises from the fact that we all live with the consequences of what the generations before us have done to society. Many, usually people of the proverbial "bleeding heart liberal" persuasion, feel guilt over the misdeeds of their ancestors and the fact that they today reap the ill gotten benefits of those crimes. These people take personal responsibility for the fact that their cultural forefathers owned slaves, raped the environment, or feasted on the orgy of government benefits America handed out at the end of World War II. This generalized guilt about the past has a bit of democratic equality about it, permitting rich people to feel guilty for being rich, and poor people to feel guilty for being poor. Inheriting sin is one of those strange areas where extremists on opposite ends of the political spectrum seem to unite. The right wing has its original sin, originating in Adam's indiscretion at the Tree of Knowledge, and the left wing has its guilt by association, originating in the social crimes of those who went before us. The vast middle, however, has nothing to do with any of this, and chooses instead to feel guilty only about those sins which one actually committed.
What makes the idea of original sin one of the deadly arguments is that is comes down to a basic feeling about oneself and about mankind in general, a feeling that will not change as a result of argument. Two very different operating systems are at work. The majority of people feel that they are essentially good folks. Thus, when they review past behaviors they do so from the point of view of the good guy within. This results in a certain amount of stress, because this good person has usually engaged in activities that to one degree or another are immoral, unethical and often criminal. The good guy within has to come up with a rationale for how such a nice person could have done these things. The rationales take any number of forms, but often involve blaming society or someone else, attributing the actions to minor errors in an overall pattern of good conduct, or simply writing them off as motivated by the old inner bad person who has now been replaced by the good one. The power of this belief in the essential goodness of oneself and mankind is enormous and the waiting room for the electric chair at major penitentiaries is often filled will good little boys who just made a few mistakes. Original sin, the idea that we were born corrupt, flies in the face of this inner goodness and has thus been almost completely squeezed out of the theology of mainstream religion.
Those who are not bothered by original sin are those who view themselves, and by extension people in general, as essentially bad. These bad people don't actually do any more damage or commit any more crimes than the good people. It's all in point of view, and bad people have it easier in many respects. They know they have the ever present inclination to do selfish and socially reprehensible acts and therefore tend to be on the watch for such things. When they get through the day without committing any crimes, without practicing arrogance, selfishness, and covetousness, they congratulate themselves. When they do engage in unethical behavior, they simply write it off as having given in to their natural inclination. As they mentally review prior behavior they do it from the point of view of a bad person, and are more often than not amazed at the number of nice things that even a bad person can do when he expends a little effort. Original sin doesn't bother bad people at all, in fact it is sort of comforting in that it takes away a bit of the personal burden that goes along with being bad. There are plenty of bad people in prison too, but even there, the good little boys outnumber the bad ones. In any case, these operating systems are basic to how people view the world, and nobody switches back and forth.
The goofy part about all this is that people probably aren't "essentially" anything. Guilt exists in people to vary degrees and for varying reasons, but original sin, essential goodness or badness, and even one's felony record probably have little to do with it. You have to deal with it where you find it, and if a little guilt will get your teenager to mow the lawn, what's the harm. However, when original sin comes up, whether it be in a religious or secular context, make your excuses and take a hike. There is no benefit in it for anyone, and no one is going to change operating systems because you think it's a good idea.
The major player in this game is "Creationism." Creationists claim that God, some six, ten, twenty thousand years ago, for very Godly reasons, decided to create the universe, and in a period of several days, proceeded to do so. Creationists know this is what happened because the Bible says that's what happened. That's fine, but creationism is in direct conflict with nearly all the scientific evidence concerning the evolution of the earth, life, and mankind. The conflict between the creationist started a political battle between the scientists and believers, a conflict that rages today in the schools and across the internet. The best thing that can be said about this whole controversy is that it inspired the movie, "Inherit the Wind," starring Spencer Tracy. The movie is wonderful, and should you ever get the urge to become enmeshed in the creationism controversy, rent a video of "Inherit the Wind" and watch it over and over until the urge goes away.
The fact is that creationists are crackpots. They have taken a perfectly good religious text and tried to make it into a science book, an effort that cannot be successful. If you doubt this, tune into the internet news groups that periodically beat this issue to death and read the creationist science that explains why it never rained on earth before Noah. The Bible says that Noah did not know rain, believe it or not, the creationists have a scientific hypothesis covering the reason that Noah had never seen rain. Humorous, maybe, but don't join the fray.
The secular version of this argument comes largely from folks who dropped out of college right after finishing an undergraduate survey of anthropology class. Using the "It is written so it must be true" argument, they maintain that religion itself in little more than a sophisticated version of early man's attempt to explain natural phenomena by resorting to supernatural causes. This is an excellent argument if one is capable of ignoring the last two thousand years of history, culture and philosophy, something that many are quite able to do, however, it is no more reasonable that the position propounded by creationists. The physicists, meteorologists and anthropologists who are as likely as anyone to be in the church pews on any given Sunday, are not there to learn about physics, weather and human development. They are there in search of God.
Religious texts like the Bible, the Koran, and others are filled with truth. However, the truth is the kind of truth that is relevant and necessary for an understanding of God and religion. Religious texts are not science texts, and it is a poor religion that rests its validity on assertions that can be undercut by scientific or historical research.
If this whole controversy still seems attractive, look at the whole thing like this. For whatever reason, we are born and have reason, a mental structure through which we must filter all of experience, including our experience of God. Reason, when applied to the objects around us--tangible things, ideas, memories, past emotions--is or can be science. Reason, when applied to our subjective experience of reality as it occurs, is religion. As you will see when we get to philosophy, this construct may not be perfect, however, if it keeps you out of the "It is written" arguments, it has done all it needs to do. If this doesn't work, and you still have the urge to get in your two cents on the subject, watch "Inherit the Wind" one more time.
The Inquisition illustrates one rather simple point. Religious people can be and often are quite evil. They have faults, they screw up, they are sinners. Of course, this is pretty obvious and most religious people spend a fair amount of time trying to deal with their own sinfulness, character defects, and plain ornriness. One of the main reasons this argument never goes away is that the character defect to which religious people are prone is not a proclivity toward torture, but a self righteousness that irritates the bejeebers out of everyone else. This is largely a result of a common psychological phenomenon. People unconsciously adopt the behaviors of those they work and live with. Thus, after a few years of teaching third grade, many elementary school teachers begin to act in many respects a lot like third graders. Policemen and prison guards, after a few years living with slime balls, begin to exhibit the characteristics and mannerisms of criminals. Similarly, if you spend a lot of time with a supreme being who is omnipotent and omniscient, you risk turning into an overblown, self righteous know-it-all. Hey, just the facts. It doesn't happen to everyone who is a theist, but there are a fair number of intolerant religious bores running amuck out there.
Most theists feel a bit of guilty about the Inquisition and the occasional weirdness that is done in the name of God. They, in a certain sense, accept a bit of responsibility for the actions of others done in the name of religion. On the secular side this is seldom the case. When nonreligious or antireligious people start killing and maiming, the common response of other nonreligious and antireligions people is, "Hey, I didn't do it." Theists suffer in this regard, feeling and possibly being ultimately responsible for what others do in the name of theism.
Atheists don't seem to suffer much for the actions of their fellow believers, however, in our modern technological society they pose much more of a physical threat than the protheletyzing Jehovah Witness. If one takes into consideration Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, antireligious political movements have killed more people in the last hundred years than religious wars and persecutions did in the last thousand. Admittedly, secular killing lacks the colorful imagination that the Inquisition brought to the art of death, but if one is concerned simply about survival, watch out for the social scientists. You are much more likely to be killed by a sociologist with a scientific plan to reform and recreate society than you are by some religious nut on a mission from Allah.
The fact is that when evil shows its ugly little head there is always a lot of other stuff going on as well, giving people a chance to pick and choose what they want to associate with the evil deed. Sometimes it's bad religion, sometimes it's bad weather, and sometimes it's just too many lawyers. So avoid arguments and be on the safe side, try not to blame evil on any broad political or religious group unless you yourself happen to be a member of that group and thereby are in a position to do something about it.
Hell really had it's heyday in the middle ages. In that time finding scientific truth in religious texts was perfectly acceptable, so hell was a physical place. It was as real to the man of the middle ages as Hollywood is to modern Americans, and it shared some of the same characteristics. There was fire, drama, pain and anguish repeated endlessly into eternity. There was torture that never actually resulted in death, evil characters and great costumes. The images of hell from the middle ages seem a bit barbaric to modern man, but one must remember that torture, burning at the stake, and other hideous forms of punishment were common in the middle ages. When disembowelment is the punishment for parking one's oxcart in a loading zone, it is not too difficult to come up with some truly disgusting punishments to mete out for an entire life of sin. In fact, the whole Spanish Inquisition may have gotten going from the rather humanitarian idea that a bit of hell here on earth, a couple of weeks of excruciating pain, might convince a person to repent and avoid the same for eternity.
In modern times, the idea that hell is a physical place at the bottom of a really deep cave has lost much of its luster. Psychologists have taken over and hell is now often portrayed as simply a place separate from God, the separation itself being sufficient punishment for one's misdeeds and lack of faith. This is sort of a go-stand-in-the-corner approach, one now used with unruly students in the primary grades of American schools. Max Groening, the cartoonist, has gone even farther by suggesting that being a student in the primary grades is hell, but that goes beyond the scope of deadly arguments.
The ethical implications of hell are as fascinating as the literary ones. To liberal Democrats and even some Republicans, eternal physical torture seems a bit harsh for even for the most hardened criminal. At some point or another, one might think it better simply to kill them, or, as in the case of hell, if they are already dead, let them simply cease to exist at all. Enough is enough already. Unending pain seems particularly harsh if one is also convinced of predestination. In this scheme, one favored by Augustine and John Calvin, not only were the flames of hell eternal, but the poor suckers who ended up there, had been predestined from before birth to be born, sin and go straight to the ovens. In addition, the sin that got you to hell could be no more than failing to convert to a particular religion the first time somebody hands you a pamphlet. If the pamphlet told you about *of.God, redeemer and savior, and you didn't convert, it's fire and brimstone time. You had your chance. Fortunately, the middle ages have passed and a good portion of humanity has noticed. Predestination is no longer the rule in modern theology, and hell doesn't get the attention it once commanded.
The deadly argument begins when we start deciding who is going to hell based upon a particular understanding of religious texts, morality, or economics. The fact is that no matter what you decide or how you decide it you run into the ethical problems described above, and you risk going there yourself for being so arrogant as to claim some particular knowledge of God's will on the question. The most common justification for damning a person to the flames is because he or she did not accept a particular religion or theological viewpoint when given the opportunity to do so. This puts enormous faith in a person's ability to select his own beliefs. If you think believing is easy, try it. Simply change one of your beliefs and believe something different for a couple of days. Try believing that the sky is purple. Not many people can do it, and if you can't choose what to believe about the color of the sky, how are you supposed to choose what to believe about God. So condemning people for nonbelief is condemning them for something that is not their fault. Of course, God may have no use for the concept of fault. A person can end up in flames by driving by a volcano at the wrong time and thus suffer quite severely through no fault of his own, however, we here on earth get on a bit better if we pay at least cursory homage to choice and a bit of personal responsibility.
Other people who get condemned to hell a lot include rich people, homosexuals, criminals and liberal democrats. Rich people probably get it mostly out of envy. They had it good here on earth, so turnabout is fair play. A lot of rich people take this threat seriously. You can see them nearly anywhere pumping away at their health clubs trying to get rid of that extra fat in order to fit through that eye of a needle. Homosexuals get it because they are easy to pick on, they act funny, and almost everyone is a little uneasy about matters sexual. Criminals are good candidates. They have broken criminal, civil and religious laws. More often than not they are truly unlikeable people. They cost the honest taxpayers untold amounts of money and do enormous damage to both property and society. Hell, why not send them to ovens. Although eternal damnation and endless suffering goes way beyond an "eye for and eye," even when the criminal has done some pretty bad stuff, if anyone is to get it the criminal is the logical choice. Liberal democrats of course get the nod because of Ted Kennedy.
The problem with the who-is-going-to-hell argument is that there are really only two ways a person can know who is going to hell and who isn't. Either their favorite religious text told them so (or someone who actually read their favorite religious text told them so), or God told them so directly. You cannot argue with any of these sources. Odds are that you haven't even read the religious writings that apply and arguing with something that came directly from God is pointless. On the other hand, if you have done the reading or spoken directly to God and thereby know exactly who is and who isn't going to hell, keep quiet about it. Be nice to those people. They are going to have it tough. Every time you see one, give him or her twenty bucks. The money won't help in hell, but it may make the day a bit easier here on earth. Deadly arguments do nobody any good.
Well, that's all for now, but there is more to come. For information on how to get further chapters of the Big Dummy's Guide, look again at the Home Page or drop by again in a few weeks. And if you have comments, you can always talk to me at, Orrin Onken, firstname.lastname@example.org, Portland, Oregon